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Florida Not Collecting Taxes Owed

May 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Fewer car sales, and a drastic drop in sales taxes from malls, tourism and hospitality caused state revenue collections for March to fall almost a billion dollars below previous estimates.

There also appears to have been a shift to more online purchases, which is renewing a call for Florida to collect a tax already owed but ignored by the state.

Sales taxes were off, falling almost six hundred million.

At the same time more packages from untaxed online sales were being delivered.

“It’s growing everyday,” said Scott Shalley with the Florida Retail Federation.

Under Florida law, online customers are supposed to voluntarily pay the tax, but few do.

“And it’s just an equity issue. This is a tax that’s due. It’s a tax that’s owed, and right now Florida businesses have an obligation that foreign businesses do not,” said Shalley.

State Senator Joe Gruters tried to change the point of collection this past session, but too many thought it smelled like a new tax.

“I will tell you as the Chairman of the Florida GOP, and as practicing tax CPA, a tax that’s owed and changing the way its collected is not a tax increase,” said Gruters.

Only five states don’t have a sales tax and 38 of the other 45 already collect from online sales, putting Florida in the minority.

“Putting an onus on in state retailers. People that support Floridians, hire Floridians, pay rent in Florida that you are not putting on foreign entities,” said Shalley.

And Florida is foregoing at least $700 million a year.

“I think as a result of the crisis and the move to more online purchases being made, that could turn into a billion dollars or more,” said Gruters.

Lawmakers aren’t likely to act until new reports come out in late June and July, showing how deep a hole the state is really in.

Gruters believes plugging the online gap could ease future spending cuts.

The tax collections also show Floridians were drinking and smoking more during the safer at home order.

Collectively those taxes were up just under $7 million.

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COVID-19 Decreasing Juvenile Detention Populations

May 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

There has been an unexpected consequence of COVID-19.

Populations at juvenile detention centers decreased significantly across the nation according to a new survey.

Florida has also put a priority on lowering the number of youthful offenders sent to such facilities.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has encouraged prosecutors, law enforcement and judges to seek alternatives to detention facilities for low risk youthful offenders in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Florida Police Chiefs Association President Kenneth Albano told us officers are taking the crisis seriously.

“We’re doing everything we can to help our adults and our juveniles to come through the crisis of COVID-19 without the additional burden, where absolutely possible, of being actually introduced into secure detention,” said Albano.

The survey measured juvenile detention facility populations across 30 states.

It found a 24 percent nationwide decrease in the month of March alone.

Mary Marx, President of the PACE Center for Girls hopes to see the trend continue.

“If we’re not committing those kids to detention because we’re concerned for their health and safety, once this pandemic is over why can’t we continue those practices?” said Marx.

Over the past decade Florida has seen dramatic improvement in its juvenile justice system.

Civil citations have increased and millions of dollars have been funneled into diversion programs.

And Marx said funding those programs is pivotal going forward.

“I think this is going to be particularly challenging as we enter the next budget year and what that state budget is going to look like,” said Marx.

And while efforts to decrease youthful offenders in detention facilities have been successful, COVID-19 cases have been documented.

There are 31 juveniles in Florida’s facilities who have tested positive.

Nationwide 488 juveniles in detention families have tested positive for the virus.

Six percent are in Florida.

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Hurricane Sales Tax Holiday Approaching

May 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

While Floridians’ minds have primarily on the COVID-19 pandemic, another threat is looming just around the corner with the official start of hurricane season coming this Monday.

However, starting Friday many preparedness items will be tax free including tarps, batteries, flash lights and even generators up to $750.

Scott Shalley with the Florida Retail Federation said the seven day sales tax holiday is the perfect time to get ready for a storm and to help out local retailers.

“Well I think it’s a great reminder to people that hurricane season actually is here. We’ve already got our second named storm today, so I think it’s important. We’ve been a little distracted obviously with the COVID crisis and people need to get out and get prepared. So this provides a great opportunity to do that,” said Shalley.

The sales tax holiday runs through June 4th.

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Federal Judge Rules Indigent Felons Must Be Allowed to Vote

May 26th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

As many as one million Floridians with past felony convictions are now eligible to vote after a federal judge ruled the state can’t prevent them from registering if they can’t afford to pay legal financial obligations related to their case.

When voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018 it was touted as the largest expansion of voting rights in recent history, but the expectations fell short when lawmakers tied the payment of fines, fees and restitution to a felon’s ability to register.

“This is a form of wealth based discrimination,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Nancy Abudu.

Abudu, who represented plaintiffs in the case, said the 125 page ruling changes everything.

“Essentially the court ruled that Senate Bill 7066 is a modern day poll tax and struck it down for that reason,” said Abudu.

The ruling makes it clear, the state can’t block a felon from voting if they can’t afford to pay their financial obligations.

It’s expected to allow as many as one million felons to register.

“This court’s decision is a vindication,” said Abudu.

There will likely be some who still are required to pay, but the burden falls on the state to prove what a felon owes within a 21 day period.

And Clemency lawyer Reggie Garcia noted the ruling also states if you were appointed a public defender or had your financial obligations converted to civil leans you will be automatically allowed to register.

Court fees alone can also not block you from registering.

Time remains to be seen how many will take advantage of it. This I think at least creates more clarity than there’s been the last 18 months,” said Garcia.

Groups like the NAACP argued the law requiring payment of financial obligations disproportionately impacted black felons, but in the judge’s decision he ruled the law was not racially motivated.

The state is expected to appeal the ruling.

The question now becomes, will the appellate court in Atlanta allow the lower court’s ruling to stay in place while the legal battle plays out?

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Lawsuit Seeks to Speed Up Unemployment

May 26th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Lawyers spent almost five hours Tuesday, arguing whether Florida’s unemployment system was living up to the requirements of state law and whether a judge has the authority to order it to do more.

Lawyers for dozens who have not seen a dime argued the state knew the system would fail and didn’t do anything about it.

Unemployed Floridians testified about one horror story after another trying to apply for benefits.

“There no method. I couldn’t find out why I was denied,” said Amy Moore Rameriz.

They told the judge they spent as many as four hours a day trying to file or check on their claim with no luck.

“She called me at twelve o’clock in the afternoon. She got kicked off seven times. She reset my pin, I tried-to log in. The pin was not recognized,” said Michael Freas.

Attorney Marie Mattox told the judge the state had plenty of advance notice that the system wasn’t working.

She cited four state audits.

“Showing that they system was fatally flawed and there were 600 problems that were identified in the last audit, and nothing was done to fix these problems,” said Mattox.

Reginald Ellison, a recently laid off DEO call center employee was asked about information and even whole claims just disappearing.

“The main the piece of information that seems to be getting lost is the claimants income information,” said Ellison.

From the beginning of the hearing, the judge said he was sympathetic to the unemployed who haven’t gotten a check, but at the same time he questioned what authority he had to order any changes.

DEO called just one witness, its CFO Damon Steffens.

He testified on improved servers and how the claims process worked.

“The most common reasons people are ineligible is because of wages,” said Steffens. “Job history, wages, things of that nature.

On Saturday and Sunday the agency paid out more than $700 million, a two day record.

The hearing was scheduled for three hours.

It was still going on at 4:30 Tuesday afternoon.

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NRA Sends Demand Letter to Tax Collector

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The National Rifle Association has sent a letter to Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy after she announced in-car driver tests and new concealed weapons permits would not be processed when the office reopens June 1st.

 

The letter puts the Tax Collector on notice that the NRA believes she is violating state law and the Governor’s executive order.

“The Tax Collector is violating the law and constitutional rights by refusing to process original concealed carry or firearms license when she reopens on June the first. She is singling out, picking and choosing what she has no authority to do what she will process.”

The letter is meant to be a warning for other tax collectors as they begin to open.

State law provides penalties for local public officials who do no adhere to the states preemption of firearm laws.

In the letter, the NRA asks Malloy to reverse her decision before she reopens on June 1st.

 

 

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Unemployment Skyrockets

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s unemployment is now officially 12.9 percent for April, slightly lower than the national average, but nearly a hundred people who sought unemployment benefits are monitoring their credit after sensitive information was left unprotected.

Florida lost 893,000 jobs in April and a total of 989,600 since the first of the year.

That’s lower than the number of people who have applied for unemployment.

Thursday’s numbers show just over a million eligible claims have been processed, while 366,000 have been denied.

“We knew it would be significant,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

In Jacksonville, the Governor told reporters the number would likely have been higher if he had a heavier touch closing the state.

“And one of the reasons why I wanted to do a safe, smart, step by step approach to recovery is that if we can can get people back to work. Get some confidence back in the communities, you’ll start to see, hopefully, a lot of these jobs be recovered,” said DeSantis.

The highest unemployment in the state is in the Orlando area.

“Just look at the theme parks,” said DeSantis.

The numbers were released a day after we learned 98 Floridians got a letter telling them their names and social security numbers were inadvertently sent to an unsecured server.

No banking information was released.

And it is not the first time data has been compromised.

On November 5, 2013, as the current system was launching, we reported the first data breach.

“Something in the computer system was encoded incorrectly and resulted in an inadvertent disclosure,” said former DEO Executive Director Jesse Panuccio at the time.

As it did in 2013, the state is paying for a year’s worth of credit monitoring and data protection.

What we don’t know is if there have been more disclosures.

We’ve asked for the information and have not gotten a response.

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Shutdowns Fueling a Bicycle Boom

May 22nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

While many businesses have been starved for customers and struggling to navigate the stay at home order, there’s one industry that has been thriving.

Bike shops are seeing unprecedented sales across the state.

The Great Bicycle Shop in the state’s capital has never seen the level of business it has in the past two months.

“It’s absolutely the busiest I’ve ever seen at any bike shop,” said employee Douglas Parke.

With businesses, recreation and fitness centers closed or operating at a limited capacity, Floridians are taking to the trails.

“Being able to get out in the fresh air is certainly healthier than being cooped up,” said Parke.

The bike boom is statewide.

Ray Kennedy is with David’s World Cycle, which operates 18 stores across the state.

“There really are more new customers and new faces discovering biking or bringing bikes out of the garage that haven’t been serviced or ridden in 10-15 years,” said Kennedy.

He told us the newest trend is the switch to online shopping.

“Last we checked I think we’ve sold six o seven times as many bikes on our website this year compared to the same time last year,” said Kennedy.

And Floridians aren’t just buying bikes, they’re putting them to good use.

One bike trail near Tampa saw 100,000 additional riders in April compared to the previous year.

It’s about an 70 percent increase.

And if biking isn’t your thing, it’s never been better to trade in or resell.

“We really can’t keep trade in bikes in stock more than a day or two. They’re usually purchased off the floor, which is awesome,” said Kennedy.

Shelves are still stocked at the stores we spoke with, but due to the high demand and supply chain slow downs it can be more complicated than usual to get certain parts and models.

Looking forward its not clear if the bike boom will hold.

With the state beginning to reopen, Floridians will have more options for exercise and recreation.

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NRA Puts Tax Collector on Notice

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The National Rifle Association has sent a letter to Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy after she announced in-car drivers tests and new concealed weapons permits would not be processed when the office reopens June 1st.

The letter puts the Tax Collector on notice that the NRA believes she is violating state law and the Governor’s executive order.

“The Tax Collector is violating the law and constitutional rights by refusing to process original concealed carry or firearms license when she reopens on June the first. She is singling out, picking and choosing what she has no authority to do what she will process,” said Marion Hammer with the NRA.

The letter is meant to be a warning for other tax collectors as they begin to open.

State law provides penalties for local public officials who do no adhere to the states preemption of firearm laws.

In the letter, the NRA asks Malloy to reverse her decision before she reopens on June 1st.

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Group Looks to Create Recommendations for Returning to the Classroom

May 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After repeatedly calling on the state to convene a task force to look at reopening schools, The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has convened its own.

The 25 member task force will convene three times in the coming weeks.

Its first meeting was held Thursday.

The group’s goal is to include the voices of teachers, staff members and school administrators in the reopening conversation.

“They are going to be the ones dealing with the day to day, minute to minute issues in a school brick and mortar building,” said FEA secretary-treasurer Carole Gauronskas.

The task force will focus on a wide variety of reopening topics including physical and mental health, student success, working conditions and financial investment in schools.

“We know that there’s going to be a financial hit when in all honesty we’re going to need more money to separate these classes to make them smaller. We’re going to need more intervention, mental health psychologists. We’re going to have to have more people driving more buses or supporting students in a way we’ve never seen,” said Gauronskas.

So far, educators say they’ve gotten little to no direction on what reopening will look like from the state.

“Are we on a rotation where you can only have 50 percent of students in a classroom at one time for social distancing? Or half of classes in school and half of classes at home and you rotate them every other day or every other week?” said Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna. “We can move the needle and move things down the road a lot further once we get guidance from the Governor.”

A second task force will also be looking into how to reopen universities and colleges.

Recommendations are expected to be finalized within 10 to 15 days, but there will likely be multiple variations of plans depending on how the pandemic progresses.

While the state has not convened its own task force for reopening schools, Department of Education Communications Director Taryn Fenske contested claims from FEA that it has been left out of reopening conversations.

“The Department of Education has been in constant communication with educators, superintendents, parents and education stakeholders throughout the entirety of the COVID-19 crisis. That is evidenced through the over 50 daily webinars with thousands of educators, dozens of memos, guidance, and conversations we’ve had, including those with the Florida Education Association. The Commissioner personally has a regular dialogue with the FEA’s President and our K-12 Division has regular dialogue with the FEA’s leadership,” said Fenske in an emailed statement.

The Governor’s Office and Department of Education told us they both will consider the recommendations FEA’s task forces produce.

You can also provide input to the groups.

During their meetings you can submit comments on Facebook or through email.

You can find a full schedule of the task force’s upcoming meetings below.

Committee on Reopening Our Neighborhood Schools

  • 10-11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, May 26 — breakout groups, discussions concentrated on defined areas
  • 10-11 a.m. EDT Friday, May 29 — full group, wrapping up
    Register here.

Committee on Reopening Florida’s Campuses

  • 1-2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, May 26 — breakout groups, discussions concentrated on defined areas
  • 1-2 p.m. EDT Friday, May 29 — full group, wrapping up
    Register here.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Lawsuit Seeks Mail Ballots for Every Voter

May 21st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Uncertainty over the health risks of voting in August and November have three citizens suing to make sure every registered voter gets a mail in ballot and state pays the return postage.

Many elections supervisors are already reaching out to voters and asking if they want a mail in ballot.

The lawsuit was filed by a retired sheriff’s deputy and two others who work helping senior citizens.

It asserts requiring voters to request a mail ballot rather than just sending one, and requiring them to pay the postage is asking too much.

“Many people don’t have computers,” said attorney Harvey Sepler, who is representing the three plaintiffs. “They don’t want to leave their homes because of the virus because they don’t want to expose themselves. That means they don’t want to leave to request a mail in ballot.”

The suit has been assigned to a judge, but no hearing has been set.

The lawsuit comes as a poll by a group calling itself Secure Democracy found overwhelming national support for everyone getting a mail ballot.

However, the same poll found 93 percent want polling places to be open as well.

“And in person voting is going to look different,” said Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer, who also serves as President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Supervisors have already asked the Governor for the authority to consolidate polling places.

“We’re not going to be letting 30, 40 people into polling site at the same time,” said Latimer.

Most voters are already getting cards asking if they want a mail ballot.

In 2018, a third of the ballots were cast by mail, but in this past Presidential Preference Primary that jumped to over 50 percent in some counties.

And so far, the state hasn’t responded to two requests from supervisors.

They want more days of early voting and longer times to mail and process ballots.

“And I’m going to go back and check and make sure I had the right address because we haven’t heard anything,” said Latimer.

And remember, you can request a mail ballot, and as long as you don’t return it, you can still vote in person on election day or early voting.

You can also return the ballot in person until the polls close.

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Don’t Let Nursing Homes Take Your Loved One’s Stimulus

May 20th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Scattered reports of Florida nursing homes cashing residents stimulus checks has Florida’s Attorney General warning it’s possible their facility pocketed the money, but there are ways you can fight back.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said her office is investigating complaints of nursing homes pocketing stimulus checks meant for residents in their care.

“These are the folks that cannot protect themselves,” said Moody.

She wants you to know it’s illegal.

“That was not what was intended by the CARES Act and it’s unacceptable, won’t be tolerated and we’re making sure we get that word out,” said Moody.

The Attorney General told us she couldn’t disclose the names or how many homes are under investigation.

She also declined to specify the penalties those homes could face if they’re found to be stealing checks.

Kristen Knapp with the Florida Health Care Association, which represents over 80 percent of the state’s nursing homes, told us there was some initial confusion about how nursing homes should handle the stimulus checks.

“We do care for Medicaid residents,” said Knapp.

Facilities wanted to ensure the money wouldn’t disqualify their residents from receiving Medicaid, but the issue has since been cleared up.

“These federal dollars are treated almost like a tax refund so they don’t count against their Medicaid eligibility,” said Knapp.

It important to check with your loved one’s care facility before filing a complaint.

While a resident may not see a physical check, it could have been deposited in their resident trust fund.

“You know it’s similar to like the personal needs allowance where that money is there to use for whether it’s buying a gift for a loved one or however they see fit,” said Knapp.

And Moody is asking Floridians to reach out to her office if you do suspect foul play.

“Call our office 1-866-9-NO-SCAM,” said Moody.

Nursing Homes will be holding a meeting Thursday to provide their members with additional guidance from on how to handle the checks.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Many Unemployed Still Waiting

May 20th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has paid out more money in unemployment claims over the last five weeks than all of the last four years combined, but tens of thousands of people applying for unemployment remain in limbo as of Wednesday.

“All of our phone lines are busy and we are unable to offer a callback option”.

It is a familiar sound to the unemployed.

Brooke Stanton said she has heard the message hundreds if not thousands of times.

Her call log shows six calls Monday.

“To this date, I still haven’t spoken to a human being. I haven’t gotten through at all,” said Stanton.

The man in charge, DMS Secretary Jonathan Satter said he has 6,000 people answering the phone.

“We tell people don’t call a hundred and eight times,” said Satter.

And he still can’t keep up.

“Yesterday we had a million phone calls. We’ve had 15 million phone calls since March 15th. We haven’t gotten to most of those. Most of those people are hanging up. Its as upsetting to me as it is to the callers,” said Satter.

The Secretary did tell us that if you are calling about your claim, you should be prepared to wait longer than an hour.

On Monday, calls to check on claims were averaging an hour and thirty-nine minutes.

He did say the best time to call was late in the afternoon.

As of Tuesday night, just under 200,000 claims were parked in what’s called a verification cue.

Brooks might be one of them because she has filed a duplicate claim after federal benefits became available.

“Because I am in a unique situation, I haven’t made a livable wage in two months because of this. And so, its just very frustrating,” said Stanton.

And while Governor Ron DeSantis said great strides have been made fixing a broken system he inherited, he also noted there are still improvements that need to be made.

“Still to this day, glitches are being fixed,” said DeSantis.

But it is of little consolation to the thousands like Brooke still waiting.

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Fired COVID-19 Dashboard Manager Raises Red Flags About Accuracy of State Data

May 19th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s nationally celebrated COVID-19 dashboard suggests reopening is going as good as one can hope.

Infection rates remain well below target levels and emergency visits for flu and COVID like illnesses are on the decline, but the firing of the architect and manager of the dashboard is raising questions about the reliability of the state data.

An email sent by the architect and former manager of Florida’s COVID-19 Dashboard to researchers and her former team makes a disturbing claim.

Rebekah Jones alleges to have been fired for being too transparent.

“As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it,” said Jones in the email.

For Pam Marsh, President of the First Amendment Foundation, the accusation is disheartening.

“How do we make decisions based on information that’s A: inaccurate and now we have this reason distrust it?” said Marsh.

Marsh also pointed out the timing of Jones’ firing as suspect.

In the email Jones claims to have been let go on May 5th, just one day after the first phase of the Governor’s reopening plan went into effect.

“When the administration needs the data to show that the curve in not just flattening, but going down,” said Marsh. “More information on this is important to gather, but I think what right now is really suspicious.”

We reached out to Jones via two email accounts, her cell and office phone numbers.

We also contacted her on Facebook, but only received an automated message saying she was not doing interviews.

The Governor’s Office released information Tuesday afternoon disputing Jones’ claim.

“Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team,” said DeSantis’ Communications Director Helen Ferre in an emailed statement.

We asked the Governor about the email directly.

DeSantis read from an email his staff provided him sent to his administration by the Department of Health.

In it Jones explains the email in question as a mistake.

“What I meant when I said don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away, and it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place,” said Jones.

DeSantis went on to tout the level of transparency the dashboard provides.

“Our dashboard has been recognized nationally. Doctor Birx has praised it multiple times,” said DeSantis.

Despite the email provided by the Governor’s Office, CBS-12 in West Palm Beach reported to have received an email directly from Jones where she stated she was fired because she was ordered to censor data, and refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen”.

Florida’s dashboard currently reflects just shy of 47,000 cases, 8,400 hospitalizations and more than 2,000 deaths.

The latest data shows only 4.27 percent of tests are returning COVID-19 positive.

We’ll continue trying to get a more detailed account from Jones.

 

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Some Fall Classes to Remain Virtual

May 19th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s 12 Universities are in the planning stage for returning to at least some on campus or face to face learning this fall, but space challenges and health concerns will make the 2020 college year unlike any before.

Sarah Kissane’s freshman year at Florida State was cut short by the coronavirus.

“I’m very excited to go back. Because these are pretty formative years for me. So I’m very excited to go back and experience things we may have missed,” said Kissane.

All 12 Presidents have been working on reopening campuses for weeks.

“We’re on at least phone calls twice, three times a week, to talk about best practices,” said FSU President John Thrasher.

Thrasher told us every decision creates five more questions.

“I’ve heard from a lot of our faculty members who have some underlying health issues who are in that critical age group. We don’t want to put anybody in harms way,” said Thrasher.

At FSU, the plan is to shift as many face to face classes to distance learning as possible.

A memo from administrators to deans and faculty warned on campus space is so limited, FSU can only accommodate one in four students with proper social distancing.

“Is to plan for both. Virtual, semi virtual if that’s going to be a thing, and in person,” said FSU student body president Jonathan Joseph Levine.

And despite her enthusiasm, space is a concern for Sarah.

“It is kind of wary, like thinking about going back and being in a big classroom situation. Because some of the classes I was in last semester were two, three hundred people,” said Kissane.

But more than anything, the soon-to-be sophomore wants clear direction.

“And be able to directly and affirmatively say this is what we are doing,” said Kissane.

Each university has until June 23 to submit its plans for returning to classrooms.

A final decision on how campuses will reopen is expected by mid-July.

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